Free agency is coming to a close and as the dust settles, one question remains: Will the Minnesota Timberwolves make the playoffs this year? With the new play-in tournament format the NBA is introducing this year, the Wolves only need to be the 10th seed in the Western Conference to have a chance at the playoffs; can they do it?
I put the rest of the teams in the West into tiers to see how the Wolves compare to the rest of the competition.
The Real Deal Contenders: L.A. Lakers, L.A. Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers
LeBron is a title favorite until the day his seemingly bionic knees give out. The Clippers are still the Clippers. I believe in what I saw from the Nuggets in the bubble. They may have lost Jerami Grant, but Michael “Maga” Porter Jr. seems primed for a breakout season.
Some might be surprised to see the Trail Blazers in this tier. Last year the injuries of Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins and Rodney Hood left what was already a thin roster begging for scraps wherever they could find them. The scraps they found came in the form of Mario Hezonja who is very, very bad. Just how bad is he? Well, Hezonja picked up his player option this season for the minimum. If that isn’t an indicator that a player knows they’re no good, I don’t know what is.
Definitely Playoff Teams: Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Utah Jazz
It certainly seems like the Rockets are poised to take a step back this season — James Harden and Russell Westbrook both want out of Houston. I would hazard a guess that Eric Gordon wants out too. Hell, P.J. Tucker might even join the bandwagon. We might get to see the greatest group pout session in NBA history until that team is broken up. Or, we might see Harden and Westbrook play the whole season in a Rockets uniform. However, until those two get traded, this team is a playoff lock.
I would have the Mavericks a tier higher if it weren’t for the fact that Kristaps Porzingis’ return to the lineup is currently unknown. How good can this team be without Porzingis? Well, considering that Luka Doncic is the odds-on favorite to win MVP, this team should be pretty good.
The Jazz made a big splash in free agency by signing Derrick Favors. Wait… didn’t they already try that? I’m not sure how a team built around Donovan “Spider” Mitchell and Rudy “Stifle Tower” Gobert can be so boring, but I do know that they’ll make the playoffs again.
Probably Playoff Teams, But Let Me See it First: Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns
Yes, the Warriors still have Steph Curry. But, Curry has an injury-riddled history and the success of this team falls almost entirely on his shoulders. If Curry is hurt the Warriors’ best player is… Andrew Wiggins? We know how that goes, and it’s not pretty.
If there is one thing I feel confident in, it’s that Chris Paul makes the playoffs. He’s only missed the playoffs three times in his 15-year career. In that same 15-year time frame, the Suns have only made the playoffs four times. I’m not sure if I should be more confident in Paul’s abilities or the Suns’ ineptitude.
Barring catastrophic injuries, these nine teams should be locked into the playoff hunt. This leaves one spot left for the Timberwolves to try and nab. But they’ve got a lot of competition for the 10th seed. Here’s the part where I convince you (and hopefully myself) that the Wolves are better than the rest of the pack.
The Rest: Spurs, Grizzlies, Pelicans, Kings
Last season, the Spurs missed the playoffs for the first time since 1997. Normally, I would bet on their institutional stability, but I’m afraid that their time has come. DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge have aged out of being All-Star level players, and although the Spurs have an interesting group of young, talented players, I struggle to see a breakout star amongst their group. I want to trust in Coach Pop, but it’s time this team officially moved into its rebuild phase.
Memphis has a young core with the potential to take a step forward this season. But, it seems like they were playing a little over their heads last season. Jae Crowder was a shockingly important piece for them. Prior to trading Crowder, the Grizz had a record of 26-25. They finished the season 8-14.
Plainly stated, I think the Pelicans got worse. Eric Bledsoe is a downgrade from Jrue Holiday. Steven Adams’ fit with Zion Williamson is clunky, and that’s even if Zion stays healthy. Their playoff hopes will be riding on Zion’s health and Brandon Ingram’s ability to improve off his NBA’s Most Improved Player season. The Pels did hire Stan Van Gundy to coach the team, but until this roster gets some more shooting to surround Zion, their playoff hopes are slim.
The Kings… well… they are the Kings. This team currently wears the metaphorical crown for the longest playoff drought at 13 years. This is something that Wolves fans are very familiar with. Although I hesitate to poke too much fun at them — after all the Wolves are not too far removed from donning the aforementioned crown — the Kings have got a lot going on right now. For one, they had a sign-and-trade for Bogdan Bogdanovic fall through because they willing let the Milwaukee Bucks commit the most obvious tampering violation perhaps the league has ever seen. Oh, and their most expensive player, Buddy Hield, apparently isn’t answering his coach’s phone calls.
All this is interesting, but keep in mind the Wolves were one of the worst teams in the league last season; what do they have going for them? Out of all four of these bottom teams, they have the best player, Karl-Anthony Towns. Let’s not forget, Towns was putting up 26.5 points, 10.8 rebounds and 4.4 assists before his season was lost to injury.
Even more impressive is that he was doing this on a team that was severely offensively challenged. The Wolves ranked 24th in offensive rating last season, in large part due to their 3-point shooting which ranked 28th in the league at 33.6%. Towns will be playing alongside more offensive firepower than he ever has with D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, Anthony Edwards and Juancho Hernangomez as his running mates.
With this group, we could see Towns have a real breakout season. Not that Towns hasn’t already “broken out” as an NBA star, but we could see him finally prove that he is more than a “good stats, bad team” guy. With adequate talent surrounding him, he can lead the Wolves to the playoffs, and it’s starting to feel like this could be the year. Well, it at least feels like he can lead the Wolves to the 10th seed. Thank goodness Adam Silver added the play-in games.